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Removing a barrier – The Register-Guard

When Secretary of State Dennis Richardson announced last week that he would move to reduce the number on inactive voters in Oregon, he stressed his intent to avoid partisan overtones. Richardson instantly restored 60,000 voters to the rolls in Oregon, and 30,000 more will be added over the next year. He said he didn t know how many of those voters are Democrats, Republicans or members of some other party or none.

I intentionally did not ask, Richardson said. Bully for him. The secretary of state s actions as Oregon s chief elections officer should be free of partisan spin. Yet Richardson s action has a partisan aspect and it works in his favor. Richardson is a Republican, and in many states a central project of the GOP is to tighten voter registration rules through tougher identification requirements and other means. Republicans claim their interest is the security of the elections process but the effect is to make it harder to register or vote in ways that disproportionately affect Democrats.

Richardson, by contrast, has added to the voter rolls. Under previous secretaries of state Democrats since 1985 people s names were stricken from the rolls of registered voters if the people had not returned a ballot in any election for the past five years. Richardson reads the law as allowing non-voters registrations to remain active for more than five years at the secretary of state s discretion. So he raised the cutoff to 10 years. Any voters whose registrations have been canceled in the past five years will automatically become eligible to vote unless cross-checking with the state s driver s license database shows them to be ineligible. People can have a gap in their voting histories for a variety of reasons, Richardson said maybe they went away to college or to serve in the military, or perhaps nothing on the ballot during the past five years caught their interest. But as long as voters are still legally qualified and remain at the address they gave when they registered, they should receive ballots. Voters will have to re-register after 10 years of non-participation, but the more generous limit, Richardson said, is in keeping with Oregon s policy of maximizing voting rights. The change will have no effect on Oregon s already high level of ballot security.

It s possible that one party will benefit most from the restoration of previously disqualified voters, but as Richardson said, that shouldn t matter. It s also possible that any of Richardson s recent predecessors would have been suspected of favoring Democrats by making it harder for voters to be purged from the rolls.

That s one unanticipated benefit of having a Republican in the secretary of state s office: Because boosting turnout or participation tends to benefit Democrats, Richardson is less likely to be accused of partisan motives when he does his job and makes it easier for Oregonians to vote.

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